In Part I of Two Boomers, One Bike, Ken and Francie Gass — married 43 years and both celebrating 70-something birthdays in 2021 — detailed the training, equipment, and teamwork required to complete a six-week cross-country trip on a tandem bicycle.
The trip tested their fitness, stamina, and trust in each other.
While their bike (which they dubbed the Momentous Green Goddess) was well equipped to survive an arduous road trip across the Southern Tier of the U.S., the intrepid couple still faced an obstacle course of steep hills, bumpy roads, strong crosswinds and headwinds, and saddle sores as they pedaled from San Diego, California, to St. Augustine, Florida.
Here’s Part II of their epic journey:
By Ken and Francie Gass
While we had trained exhaustively for a year before setting out and enjoyed a fully supported six-week trip organized by Cycle of Life Adventures — which provided food and accommodation and transported our luggage during the ride — we soon discovered we still had to overcome a number of challenges along the way.
Challenges on the road
Experienced cyclists know that road surface makes a huge difference in the comfort of the ride and in your speed.
Texas roads, which we were on for 18 days, were mostly chip seal and, like everything in Texas, the rocks in their chip seal were BIG. It made for a bumpy ride.
Texas rates its roads from rough to smooth, naming them Ranch, Farm, County or State. We were shocked by 75 mph speed limits on two-lane County roads!
Even though freeways could be scary, the wide, smooth shoulders were wonderful.
We encountered many days with winds of 20-30 mph with gusts up to 40 mph. Tailwinds can help you go 30 mph without pedaling! But crosswinds and headwinds are demoralizing.
One day on I-10, we had 30 mph crosswinds on our right shoulders which propelled us down the highway at over 20 mph but also pushed us towards the passing traffic.
It was downright scary. Ken had to lean into the wind and Francie hunkered down to reduce the wind resistance, which meant Francie stared at Ken’s lower back for 18 miles.
So many hills and the Southern Tier is considered the easy route across the U.S.! The most challenging were in the Texas Hill Country where Lance Armstrong used to train. They started out as gentle rollers climbing into the greening countryside from the dry ranchland, then lurched upwards to 15 percent grades.
Francie: Ken’s strategy was brilliant…telling me we could stop at any time — which usually made me want to keep going.
Ken: Yes, but the last hill that simply went straight up in the sun required a break for our lungs and legs.
Re-starting the climb was another matter. We could not develop enough momentum for me to get clipped in without our support rider Tom holding the back of our bike and giving us a shove up the hill. Then it was make-it-to-the-top-or-bust.
Soon after cresting we had our lunch break and one long victory hug. That was our third 80-mile day in a row and with 5,534 feet of climbing, the most of our tour.
Yet more challenges
Ken: We had other personal challenges. The low humidity of the desert Southwest, with altitude over 4,000 feet and direct sun, dehydrated us quickly, most especially our mouths.
High SPF lip balm protected the outside, but not the inner lips of an open-mouth breather like me, leaving mine ulcerated for much of the ride. From our youngest rider, Rocio, I learned to pull a neck gaiter over my nose and lips to decrease drying and sun exposure.
Long hours on the bike left points of contact – soles, hammer toes, palms, and buttocks – sore and in need of both extra protection and daily care.
One rider on a loaner never adjusted to the different saddle or protected his worsening saddle sore, forcing him to drop out after nine days with a large skin ulcer.
My dime-size buttock ulcer was quickly and adeptly attended to by my private duty nurse/Stoker and healed after 10 days, protected by two pairs of padded shorts and frequent applications of butt cream.
Bent over and pedaling on our bike day after day also left us 70-yr-olds with a litany of strains – neck, shoulder, wrist, elbow, lumbar, hips and knees – treated by stretching before and after rides and at each water and food stop during rides, as well as by occasional icing and targeted Ibuprofen doses.
Meshing our bike with the group
One final challenge had nothing to do with our bodies, but rather our tandem – longer, heavier, less maneuverable, and slower to stop and start — than the light-weight carbon road bikes of the other riders.
Riding with the other cyclists in tight pacelines didn’t work on the hills, as our greater weight made us lag behind going up and rocket ahead going down.
Actually, we chose to rocket downhill — at times hitting 40 mph at the bottom — in hopes the speed gained would enable us to summit the next hill with the others: the Yoyo Effect.
Our group consisted of seven people: three women, four men — average age 66, ranging from 55 to 74 — and two male leaders: Dennis, the owner, and Tom, his assistant.
Dennis and Tom would take turns either riding with us or driving the van with our luggage, spare parts and tools. Remember this was a supported ride, and we were old, so there were no packs on bikes and no camping.
Our hotel accommodations ranged from luxurious to bare minimum, because sometimes there was no other choice.
What was our routine like?
We would wake up at 6 a.m. and make a pot of horrible motel coffee.
Put butt grease on, cover ourselves in 30-50 spf sunscreen. Check the weather several times to determine what clothing to wear. Stretch. Pack up. Go to the bathroom. Check emails. Meet in the lobby to walk to a restaurant or more often pick up our pathetic pandemic-approved breakfast bag from the hotel.
To his credit, Dennis bought fruit and microwaveable oatmeal or breakfast sandwiches to supplement these sad breakfasts. During our meal, we would get a briefing on the day’s ride from Dennis.
Back to our room. Go to the bathroom again.
We were a little anxious each day because every day was a different route. We looked at the downloaded route each day, but the elevation maps do not tell you the grade of the hills.
With our suitcases in the van, tires pumped and fresh cold water in our bottles, we were on the road by 8 a.m. If we were cycling through a city of any size, Dennis would lead us in a tight group, our momentous tandem usually at the tail end.
We loved the early mornings! As soon as we got on our bikes and out of the city the anxiety subsided. The morning light was lovely, the winds were almost non-existent, traffic was minimal — there was nowhere else we wanted to be.
On the road the van stopped every 15 miles so that we could rest in chairs, eat a snack, get more water, put on more sunscreen or butt paste and find a place to pee. It was often challenging for the women…from behind the van door to behind a utility box in downtown El Paso!
Lunch was always a little past half-way for the day. Dennis or Tom would set up a canopy for shade or find a great shady spot — like the Yuma, Arizona, library lawn — and provide us with sandwiches, chips, nuts, coke, chocolate milk, cookies, candy, fruit…we ate and ate.
Ah, a daily chance to relax (sort of)
Our daily End of Ride Routine was thoughtfully planned to support us when we needed it most.
Our leader Dennis drove the van after our lunch break, reaching our lodging in time to pay the bill, collect our room keys, and place our luggage in our rooms before we arrived.
On Easter he surprised us with plastic eggs filled with treats! For our sake he arranged, when possible, a ground floor handicapped access room for easy roll in and out of our tandem bike.
Once we dragged our tired bodies and bike into our room, we had at least an hour before our group dinner or hosted cocktail hour whenever we arrived in a new state.
An hour to start charging our electronics, shower while washing our cycling outfits (simultaneously in the shower), change into street clothes, set washed gear out to dry by the room air-conditioner fan, download the day’s ride data, and, if time allowed before dinner, check our email and start work on our day’s journal.
Dinner was in a local restaurant with local cuisine. We only ate in one Appleby’s on the whole trip!
That was significant to us; we really appreciated Dennis’ efforts to find good restaurants, as well as his generous welcoming and hosting of friends and family who met us along the way. Dinner was a time for us to connect as a team over our day’s experiences.
After dinner what little time remained before hitting the bed for a minimum of eight hours of sleep was spent finishing our journals, emails, repacking, and setting out gear for the next day’s ride.
The highlights of our time pedaling
Not a highlight in the usual sense, but a big eye-opener for us was the slatted, rust-colored Border Wall and the huge presence of Border Patrol vehicles, listening devices, and school bus-sized white detention buses with blacked-out windows along much of our route from California to Texas. Only on our last day along the wall did we have human contact with the Border Patrol: Agent Reyes, a tri-athlete who drove up to us at a rest stop to ask about Cycle of Life Adventures!
The striking Ridge & Basin topology of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts, from California to Texas, were a source of geologic wonderment and ever-changing skyline patterns morning to evening.
Wildflowers of Texas, Louisiana and Alabama, both purposefully and spontaneously planted in eye-catching arrays, were a challenge to identify and a constant delight.
The azaleas, live oaks and pine forests of flat East Texas and Louisiana and Florida’s rolling Panhandle offered color and welcome shade.
The aquamarine water and white sands of the Gulf Keys of Alabama and Florida were a refreshing treat.
Our last five days of cycling through the lush green growth and unique swamps of the Florida lowlands were a fitting bookend to the deserts of the Southwest.
Finally the Atlantic Ocean, an exhilarating way to end our adventure with a curious crowd of onlookers.
Key Lessons learned were…
Our bodies once conditioned can do more than we imagined, whether triggered by the power of positive thinking or not giving ourselves a way out.
While persistent pain must be attended to, minor annoyances can be overlooked when you are focused on your day’s goal, but come painfully to roost when the goal is in sight – like our burning soles over the pedals with one to two miles to go for the day!
The daily social media buzz feeds can be safely ignored for a least six weeks.
Two people with one camera can sometimes lead to frustration. “Want to take a picture of those hills?” Ken would ask hopefully. “Not really,” Francie would reply. If it really mattered to one of us, we would say so.
It became very clear that we needed each other to succeed. Not only to literally pedal across the U.S., but also to encourage each other and to ignore or tolerate our differences.
The foremost advantage of riding a tandem is the lack of accusations: “You left me behind!” “What happened to you? You were right behind me!” We were always together and our teamwork was good for our marriage.
As long and difficult as this trip was, we really only had to pedal, eat and sleep. Everything else was taken care of.
We lucked out with our congenial fellow riders and our leader and his company standards; do your homework before selecting a “supported” ride.
We realized that in order to complete our epic ride we had to maintain our routines, humor, group spirit, and focus, without bringing along with us the distractions of home to-do lists or community responsibilities.
And last, we acknowledge our privileged status that provided us the time and money to pursue our epic ride.
Ken and Francie Gass are retired medical professionals living in Washington State, where they are always plotting their next adventure.
I am recommending this site to friends in Maryland who are adventurous and the same age as Ken and Francie. They ride a tandem bike but never this far, give them something to think about. — Chrissy Sonneperson, firstname.lastname@example.org
Response: Excellent idea, Chrissy. From Maryland they could probably take the middle route across the U.S. that travels through mostly flat countryside until it gets to the Rockies, where the fun begins. They’ll thank you for it.